There are lots of recipes for holiday joy. It's all about combining the right ingredients for your family to make the coming weeks meaningful and fun. Each year, it seems everyone juggles more responsibilities. Many people have less time and less money to create that "perfect" holiday. Yet the music, the decorations, the food, the gift-giving and whatever spiritually you want to include add up to the most celebratory time of the year. We have rounded up five ideas that could become part of your own seasonal recipe for success.
Create a long-lasting centerpiece
The dining table is a focus of the holidays, whether it's the setting for festive meals or the command center for writing Christmas cards and wrapping presents.
"Your table should celebrate the season," says Sidra Forman, a chef and flower designer in the District's Shaw neighborhood. "Flowers and natural ingredients enhance camaraderie and conversation."
Forman creates tablescapes spiced with beautiful things that speak of winter: moss, chestnuts, acorns, persimmons and kumquats. Her advice is to start looking outdoors for midwinter greenery such as camellia and leatherleaf viburnum. Search for unusual bowls or cups to display flowers. Use layers of moss or a large tray as a base for your holiday tableaux, Forman says. Add candlelight for a nice glow. If you are having a seated dinner, manage the height of your arrangement so it won't interfere with conversation. Buffets can display something taller.
Diana Wescott, the Whole Foods regional floral buyer, stocks store shelves with plants such as lemon cypress ($12.99), rosemary trees ($12.99) and white snowball hydrangea ($24.99) to use as elegant centerpieces.
The classic choice is the stately amaryllis. She says red, white or striped amaryllis ($8.99) with buds about to open are just being delivered. "You can't go wrong with an amaryllis plant," Wescott says. "Put several in a big compote or soup tureen and cover the top with moss or pine needles. Add some birch or berries and you're good for a few weeks."
Another strategy: Steal decorating ideas from Pinterest and Instagram, which are full of low-cost inspiration to fill your table with cheer.
Manage family expectations
The demand for time and the pull of nostalgia during the holidays can make for a stressful month. Focus some attention on managing priorities. "We should make sure our expectations are realistic and not strive for something that nobody can produce," says Mary Alvord, a Maryland psychologist.
Figure out what seasonal activities or functions are essential to your family, not just what you might be doing because you always have. "Every family should think about what the holidays mean to them," says Lynn Bufka, also a psychologist in Maryland. "Do we need to bake 15 kinds of cookies?"
For some, the religious aspects of the season have always been the most important. But there are so many others, including passing along cherished culinary traditions, gathering with neighbors, volunteering or writing holiday letters. "Sometimes we get wrapped up in doing everything we could do and lose sight of the reasons we're doing it in the first place," Bufka says.
Call a family meeting this week. Ask your children what they have enjoyed the most from Christmases past. "You might be surprised what they might tell you," Bufka says. If this is the first holiday for couples, they can develop their own traditions. Any family that has suffered a major loss in the previous year, such as death or divorce, should discuss ways to cope with the change during a time when everyone else is celebrating, Alvord says.
To reduce stress, write down all the traditional holiday activities that your family enjoys and rank them in terms of importance. Then make a plan for how to divide up the shopping, cooking and cleaning so everyone shares in the work, and one person doesn't have to make the holidays happen single-handedly. (This is often the mom.) Everyone will sleep better knowing the goodies that lie ahead and what needs to be done. Share the chores and share the joy.
The holidays are a time for traditions. But traditions are by their very nature old, and old things aren't always the most practical.
This was the logic behind Paperless Post, the thriving e-card company founded in 2009 by James Hirschfeld, 26, and his sister Alexa, 28. "Holidays remind people of their childhood, they want to do things the way they've done them since they were kids," James Hirschfeld says. "But our philosophy is about streamlining communication without compromising beauty or personality. We brought cards to a more efficient format."
The emotional arguments against e-cards are obvious: For many, they feel less personal, insensitive or even lazy. But younger generations who might not be as put off by electronic correspondence appreciate that e-cards are faster, customizable and significantly cheaper, Hirschfeld says. While upscale paper cards can cost about $6, Paperless Post offers electronic versions for pennies.
But paper lovers are in luck, too. Ink Cards, a mobile app run by the San Francisco company Sincerely, offers hundreds of card templates with space to insert messages and photos. After you've built the card to your liking, Ink prints and mails it for you. Minted, also based in the Bay Area, recruits graphic designers to submit art that can be made into greeting cards. This season, the company is offering a "triple thick" paper stock that feels like museum board, a great choice for the photography buffs on your list.
Even Paperless Post is going retro. It has collaborated with companies such as Kate Spade and John Derian and launched a line of paper cards that they will print and mail for you. Some of the options are delightfully old-school.
"You know those family cards with the corny photos? Well, we offer an e-version of those, too," Hirschfeld said. "For the real skeptics."
The holidays tend to initiate a kind of open-door policy in a neighborhood. When guests drop by unannounced, it's nice to welcome them with a small, seasonal gift — what we call a reverse hostess gift. Whether it's a loaf of homemade pound cake paired with a jar of local honey or a tin of hot chocolate and some of your favorite flower seeds, it's an easy way to show your guests you've been thinking of them (even if you weren't expecting them).
Here are a few ideas so you don't get caught empty-handed.
Eggnog carries a special sentiment because it's only served this time of year. We recommend filling six to eight glass bottles ($4-6 at the Container Store). You can buy it from the store or make your own, but the packaging is key: Trim the bottles with festive ribbons, bows and gift tags. If you go the more spirited route, warn your guests by labeling the bottles with a skull and crossbones or three X's and keep them out of little elves' reach.
If you're pressed for time, wine is almost always a crowd-pleaser. Save yourself time and money by buying a case of wine instead of individual bottles. Whole Foods, Harris Teeter and Safeway offer a 10 percent discount when you buy six or more bottles of wine. Package each bottle in a festive tote — about $4.50 each at the Container Store — and toss in a few chocolates or candy canes.
If edible and potable gifts aren't your bag, consider candles or ornaments. "No matter how long you've been collecting ornaments, there are always a couple casualties along the way," said Susan Cannaday, the general manager of Bloomingdales in Chevy Chase. "Candles are fabulous because they're universal. No matter your style or decor, a candle goes with everything."
What happened to knit socks and chocolate coins? A recent Nielsen study showed that half of children ages 6 to 12 have placed Apple's iPad at the very top of their gift lists, with Wii and iPods not far behind. But electronics are also a handy resource for parents who need help staying organized this time of year.
When you strap in for your holiday shopping marathon, download a few apps to make the ride a little smoother. IGive Gifts, Gift List Manager and the Christmas List (or Christmas List Pro for Android) allow you to track what you've bought, as well as shipping and delivery. The Christmas List, which also provides a budget-monitoring system to help prevent overspending, is password-protected to keep snoopy family members at bay.
SaleLocator, which is free on Apple and Android, provides up-to-date information on nearby sales as well as driving directions and e-mail alerts. Barcode-scanning apps, such as RedLaser and ShopSavvy for iPhone or Barcode Scanner for Android, come in handy for comparing prices and tracking discounts on the go.
Evernote, a year-round day-planning app, kicks into high-gear during the holidays with tools to help you plan your travel and drum up dinner menus. Use it to keep track of who gets what so thank-you notes are less chaotic.
When you're building your own wish list, consider sites such as Amazon or Pinterest that allow you to display and link to the items you're lusting after. Amazon's Friends and Family Giving lists can be connected through Facebook so that you receive birthday reminders and gift suggestions based on information they have "liked" through social media.